When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January of 2016 that a constitutional ban on mandatory juvenile life-without-parole sentences should be applied retroactively, Joanna Visser Adjoian knew her state was poised to become a nexus of advocacy. Pennsylvania prisons hold fully 25 percent of the 2,000 U.S. residents sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of crimes as children. “There was this feeling that we were in a momentous occasion for change,” described Adjoian, the Co-Director of the Philadelphia-based Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP), “but we knew that we lacked the resources to do that effectively.”

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Immediate release for people serving mandatory juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences is not automatic. The Supreme Court decision mandated either individual resentencing hearings or parole for each impacted individual, including 500 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania—a group that is disproportionately comprised of Black men due to sentencing bias. Louisiana and Michigan have the next highest populations, each with similar demographics. Together, they incarcerate over 1,100 people serving JLWOP sentences.

The issue of JLWOP is relevant to the EA’s strategy of shifting the narratives about boys and men of color, with an abiding belief in redemption and second chances. After connecting at a convening hosted by EA member foundation Andrus Family Fund, EA staff and two EA members, Open Society Foundations (OSF) and the Butler Family Fund, convened conference calls to get foundations on board and to afford advocacy organizations like YSRP and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC) the opportunity to outline programming and funding needs for the three most impacted jurisdictions. Together, EA national funders including Andrus, Butler, OSF, Public Welfare Foundation, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation quickly channeled over one million dollars into the resulting joint proposal, financing litigation support, data collection, trainings, and mitigation processes in the three most impacted states. EA staff also joined the Andrus Family Fund and Butler Family Fund in presenting to a coalition of Philadelphia funders, urging them to leverage the national support from EA members and create corresponding regional grant-making strategies. This resulted in two additional local grants to organizations on the ground. “The speed and the amount of funding raised are testaments to the importance of collaborative relationships within the Executives’ Alliance, and most of all, to the coordination, commitment, and skills of the advocacy community,” said Martha Toll, Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund.

Thanks to JLC training for law firms, the majority of Pennsylvanians sentenced to life without parole as young people have now received offers of representation. “Getting some modicum of organization around the state in the last year is significant,” explained Marsha Levick, JLC Deputy Director and Chief Counsel. “We have some systems in place, and now we are gearing up towards a series of legal challenges.” YSRP currently retains on-staff mitigation specialists to demonstrate extenuating circumstances and push for more favorable resentencing. Beyond the courtroom, Adjoian stressed the need for dedicated support to individuals reentering communities that have changed dramatically while they were in prison. Meanwhile, in states with lower-capacity legal systems and advocacy groups, the work toward juvenile resentencing is only beginning. The challenging pace of progress in those states suggests that continued and deeper collaborations among national and local foundations will be necessary to catalyze additional local support.


  1. Inviting advocates to present a joint proposal was a game changer. It is important for philanthropy to trust the advocacy community to speak to what is needed.
  2. When philanthropy undertakes joint activities, the model will not be the same in every geographic area. The capacity on the ground varies widely and we must be willing to accept different approaches.
  3. In order to catalyze local philanthropy, national foundations have to be willing to fund rst, even if there is not yet evidence of support from local philanthropy.